Are You a Control Freak?

Does our attempt to control reality create suffering?

Alan Watts discussed the concept of Ziran (or Spontaneity) on the Alan Watts Podcast

“Ziran means spontaneous, it happens as your heart beats, you don’t do anything about it, you don’t force your heart to beat, you don’t make it beat, it does it by itself. Now figure a world where everything happens by itself, it doesn’t have to be controlled, it’s allowed. Whereas the idea of God involves the control of everything going on. The idea of the Tao is the idea of the ruler who abdicates and trusts all the people to conduct their own affairs, to let it all happen, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a unified organism and everything is in chaos, it means that the more liberty you give, the more love you give, the more you allow things in yourself and in your surroundings to take place, the more order you will have.”

Does our attempt to control each other make us sick? Is the desire for power and control the core human illness? The creation of all suffering and misery? Too strong? Maybe, but desire to control has led to most human atrocities.

Spontaneity has been one of my core values since I can remember. I feel trapped, almost claustrophobic when my life is over scheduled or externally planned. But anxiety about losing my free time is just another attempt at control, isn’t it?

One evening, I was sitting outside with the neighborhood parents when the ubiquitous subject of our children’s activities came up. A father said, “ya gotta teach ’em to keep busy. It keeps ’em out of trouble.”

To which I replied, “I’m trying to teach ’em to avoid being busy. You know, so they can do what they want to do.”

“So you’re trying to raise couch potatoes?” he said.

I let it go at that.

But I must ask …
Why do so many people assume that if children are left to their own devices that they will become blobs of glowing jello? Where is the evidence?

Is it just my perception, or have modern parents replaced corporal punishment with a more damaging form of authoritarianism, the complete domination of their children’s time and movement?

What is more disconcerting is the parents who try to control their children by pacifying them with High Fructose Corn Syrup and other overindulgences.

Or are these observations just judgments from another control freak?

Do you judge how others live… and the things they believe… do you find their way of life ‘politically incorrect” or low brow?

It’s hard to see it from the inside out.

“the more liberty you give, the more love you give, the more you allow things in yourself and in your surroundings to take place, the more order you will have.” – Alan Watts

10 thoughts on “Are You a Control Freak?”

  1. Hey Steve! Thanks for the comment.

    Just wanted to say I’m a longtime fan and it’s an honor to have you read something I wrote – even if it was a link back to you. 😉

  2. I believe that many people make the assumption that if children are left to their own devices that they will become “blobs of glowing Jello” because of the fact that childhood obesity is on the rise. Though I wouldn’t classify it as an epidemic, my belief is that today’s children have far more distractions that keep them sedentary (e.g. round the clock television programming that fits just about any interest, video games, etc…) than that of the generation of children before them. Couple that with the overwhelming fear propagated in the hearts and minds of the parents that someone evil will snatch up your kids while you aren’t watching keeps children from simply going outside and being kids.

    Given that, I believe a measure of control must be exerted to simply break through the distractions the children face and the fear of those that care for them. I don’t believe that we, as parents, should simply just let our kids do what they want. But I also don’t believe in the authoritative, “do what I tell you because only I know what is best for you” either. The key here is balance. I control my kids to show them what I believe to be best for them; however I also try my best to listen to them to help me decide what is best for them.

    An example of what I mean comes by way of education. Left to his own devices, my son wouldn’t lift a finger to do his homework. Sadly, he could really care less. I control him by checking his homework and ensuring that A) he does it and B) he does it correctly. He complains often and thinks that I shouldn’t have to check his homework. But the past has shown that if I don’t check, he doesn’t do it. I exert my control for what I believe to be best for him and his future.

    Another example is that my son wanted to sign up for baseball this year. I obliged him, but told him that if I signed him up he had to finish out the season. Things were rocky at first and he was pretty adamant that he wanted to quit. I kept reminding him that he had to finish and pushed him out there to be a part of his team. At the end of the season, he had such a great time that there isn’t a question that he will be signing up next year as well. So I exerted my control to make him finish what he started. In this case, it turned out well. But even if it hadn’t, the bigger lesson was to finish what he started.

    I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as a control freak, but I do, very much, control my children in order to help them become whatever it is that they wish. Education is opportunity. Working well with others is opportunity. All the things I control my kids for is to maximize the opportunities that will be presented to them. I don’t believe that children are aware enough about the intricacies of our society to just figure it out on their own. I also don’t think that they will just naturally slip into it if I just let them do what they want. Just as you mentioned, human nature has a desire to control and control has lead to many atrocities. What I control my children for is to not desire that type of control. It’s a backassward way of thinking, but I teach them qualities to become respectable people that care for others as well as themselves.

    I think the problem with the logic in this post is that I feel you are trying to draw a parallel between parenting and dictatorship (for lack of a better term). I don’t think the average dictator really cares much for those under him; however, I believe the average parent loves his children and really wants the best for them. I feel it shouldn’t be the desire to give up control, but the motivation behind the control is what really should be in focus.

  3. @Brendon,

    No problem. Glad to have you as a fan. I feel very fortunate to have you around especially with my sporadic posting of late.


    I parent in a similar way as you. I make my kid do his homework. I hover as much as anyone. I’m concerned about obesity too. We are very diet conscious.

    But in some of these posts I am questioning all of us.

    But personally I don’t believe homework is the slightest bit important. Only our culture values homework, and since this is the culture I live in, I try to instill the idea in my children that it is important to OTHER people and those other people get to decide whether they want to give you certain things like credibility or a job. You don’t get to decide who thinks you are credible, we all get to decide that for ourselves. Education is the measure in our society, albeit terriblly flawed. I know doctors who I wouldn’t trust with lawn care and I know dropouts I’d trust with my business, my family, and my finances.

    Like most parents, I control my kids constantly. But I am asking the question. Is this control creating better results? Our culture and nation seems hellbent on controlling everything from our carseats, the plants we can grow, our diet, our healthcare, how much we can pay an employee. Is this leading somewhere good or bad?

    I wasn’t trying to draw a parallel between dictatorship and parenting, I was trying to point out the human addiction to control. And I have sneaking suspicion that our controlling is not going to produce the world we want, like Mr. Watts said. We won’t get what we want until we learn to let go of our fear and control.

    We don’t want obedient people, we want people who can think.

  4. One more thing…

    In regards to obesity. I have come to the conclusion that most of the recent trends in obesity, including childhood obesity can be directly tied to social and government attempts to control the American diet. It is too hard to explain here… but just think about it and then watch this video.

  5. Having worked in an environment where there are lots of control freaks, I can say with certainty that, yes, it causes misery and yes, it makes people ill.

    The obsession with control and certainty around outcomes has one devastating consequence, it completely crushes creativity. Certainty comes at a cost and that is usually mediocrity.

    If you haven’t already read it, then I would recommend Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organizing without Organizations, which has some very astute observations about this subject.

  6. Personally, I believe you need to look deeper. Desire for total control is rooted in greed and greed is human nature. It probably stems for some survival instinct that compelled us to scare away other predators from what is ours. Even today, when society breaks down, many of us are compelled to horde food and water, turning away those that aren’t close to us because WE need to survive. We are very much, in that moment, attempting to control everything around us to maximize our survival. Good or bad? I suspect that it very much depends on which side of the situation you happened to have fallen on. But the fact remains that in both situations a desire for control is paramount.

    Put it this way, we have to have control in order to just survive. In a world where there are a finite number of resources, how is it that we can just let it all just happen and expect to survive? I have to exert my control over the environment so I don’t freeze to death or bake in the hot sun. I have to control the lives of the animals and plant life so that I can eat. I certainly can’t do this on my own very well, so I have to solicit help from family and friends by exerting some kind of control to help me accomplish the tasks so that everyone will be able to survive. If we want comfort, we need to exert even more control, because we need X, Y and Z in order for that. So I have to solicit strangers and control them enough to help me accomplish this goal. Now we have to deal with who gets what and how to ensure that the very human nature, greed, doesn’t pop out its ugly head. I mean it goes on and on.

    Again, I go back to questioning the motivations of the control rather than whether or not we need to control. To control is to survive.

    Incidentally, I have seen that video you cited. However, I would caution you to not draw any firm conclusions. Richard D Feinman, a professor of biochemistry and medical researcher at State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, has been researching these low carb diets for many, many years. Though it seems that the biochemical science is compelling, he agrees that these diets don’t work for everyone. So if the science is so dialed in, why are we still not able to “control” obesity with the low carb diet? Though Feinman is on a low carb diet, I believe that he made the statement that the best diet a patient can be on is the one that they can stay on. In my opinion, that doesn’t seem very conclusive.

    Personally, I believe it is a combination of lowering carbs, diet (meaning what you eat, rather than how much you eat) and exercise. You don’t get something for nothing no matter how much we try to control it.

  7. Most people, most of the time are not fighting for survival. Modern society pushed us past that a long time ago. So although I agree those basic instincts exist, using them and viewing the world as a zero sum jungle is precisely what can cause issues with excessive control.

    I would also make a big distinction between trying to control myself and my outcomes and trying to exert excessive control over others. Most of the time I can achieve what I want without having to control anyone else. Achieving this is always preferable to trying to meet my goals through controlling other people.

  8. As a parent, I try to “control” my boys with the boundaries approach…they can do what they want within certain limits. Watching TV is very limited, play is not. I expect them to keep themselves entertained, without a parent or teacher supervising and directing. And to some extent, they have to work (or fight) out their disagreement.

    As much as I can, I allow consequences (for good or ill) result from chosen action. Do not want to eat dinner? Fine, no desert. The plate of food gets put up, so two hours later, when desert is asked for, they can finish dinner.

    Showing my age, I remember as a kid having pickup games of football and baseball in someone’s front yard almost every day. No adults directing.

  9. Though modern society has changed the playing field, the game is still being played. Humanity still requires control in order to survive even if the control is being supplied by someone else. Remove one of the factors in our ability to control, watch what happens to humanity. In a perfect world, where there are infinite resources, control isn’t necessary. But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?

  10. Steve, I agree with you with most of the things.

    But I have to say that children with very young age (3-12) need to be control. To answer your questions – “Why do so many people assume that if children are left to their own devices that they will become blobs of glowing jello? Where is the evidence?”

    Well, did you ever see if you leave your 5-12 years old alone for few hours, they will automatically clean up their room and do housework?? If they do, they will be a monster to me:) We still have to teach and control children, but the ultimate game plan for parent will be helping them to be independent or “without our parent control”.

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